Days were grower darker, as the news was getting darker still about the growing pandemic. The home phone would ring to automated messages from the town manager, urging everyone to stay home, stay safe, and save lives. It was hard to tell if the lines on the window were being etched by Jack Frost, or if it was the fingers of the Grim Reaper, tap-tap-tapping with COVID-laced nails. But there was a glimmer of light, and that light was the news that the English folk big band Bellowhead had reunited for a one-off concert to be streamed at the beginning of December 2020.
Reassembled is the document of that program. It will likely stand the test of time as a document of something much more important: the sheer joy of people being together and making a glorious noise. Bellowhead had disbanded in 2016, but given that it was the tenth anniversary of their tremendous album Hedonism, and the general state of the world a reunion seemed appropriate.
Bellowhead were so successful at their lavish, tight versions of English folk tunes because of the sheer overwhelming collection of talent (with occasional personnel changes). Here, we have the unit of Jon Boden (fiddle, vocal); Nick Etwell (trumpet); Pete Flood (drums, percussion, vocal); Brendan Kelly (saxophones); Benji Kirpatrick (bouzouki, guitar, mandolin, banjo, vocal); Rachael McShane (cello, fiddle, vocal); Ed Neuhauser (helicon); Paul Sartin (fiddle, oboe, vocal); John Spiers (melodeon, concertina, vocal); Sam Sweeney (fiddle, bagpipes, vocal); and Justin Thurgur (trombone). Within that fold there are solo albums and side projects galore, but collectively, the theatre-pit-orchestra-Victorian-sea shanty-country-dance-funk-folk-jazz cannot be mistaken for anything else but the Bellowhead sound.
What Reassembled delivers is a boisterous, rollicking setlist packed with favorites. For a "live" album, there is a weird hollowness to the vibe, as there was by necessity no appreciative audience present; but, the lack of an audience is offset by a palpable sense of relief as Bellowhead motor along through their show. The song and tune arrangements have not changed terribly much, so the band treads well-worn paths with vigor as they rediscover themselves. In particular, Pete Flood does a masterful job of keeping the tempo up and varied, and he really anchors the band. There is little to complain about on this recording if you"ve enjoyed the likes of "Roll Alabama," "Yarmouth Town," "Haul Away," "Roll The Woodpile Down," and "London Town," you will likely do so again. The instrumental tunes genuinely shine on this Bellowhead outing, with "Parson's Farewell," "Cross-Eyed and Chinless," "The March Past," and "Frog Legs & Dragon's Teeth" doing their darnedest to get dancers and listeners swaying. Still, everything is filtered through a lens of nostalgia for a time that lay not far distant in the past, when concerts were regular occurrences, and we could comfortably share the same air without worry. It's enough to bring on the tears.
Fallow Ground is another reunion album: that of the duo of John Spiers and Jon Boden. Spiers and Boden put their duo on temporary hold in 2014, and here they come out firing on all cylinders. This is a handsome, beautifully played album that is so brisk that the songs and tunes sound like a much larger band. Further, Spiers and Boden venture off into Australian folk song territory, kicking off with "Bluey Brink" and "Butter & Cheese & All," both connected with the late Peter Bellamy's repertoire. These songs resulted in a revelation for me: I tend to like folk-singers with deep voices, the kind that could age whiskey just by singing at it. Boden, though, has a higher range and through these Australian songs, the debt to Bellamy comes through. Not that Boden sounds like Bellamy, but that here he sounds more grown into himself. He's more of a conduit for the songs while managing to stamp them with his own identity; in other words, you would never mistake Jon Boden for anyone else. As a result, Boden helps Fallow Ground to soar.
And John Spiers is just a force of nature on this recording; his melodeon and concertina playing is terrific. I adore listening to the interplay of Spiers' concertina and Boden's fiddle in the "Goddesses/Red House" set (both tunes are via "Playford's Dancing Master of 1651"). There is, literally, plenty of stomping on this tune (and elsewhere on the album), encouraging everyone to kick up a bit of sawdust.
Of special note is the intriguing treatment of "Reynardine," which nearly sounds like the folk tune met with a modernist string composition. The result is that the song is given new life. And while much of Fallow Ground is uptempo (closer "Bailey Hill/Wittenham Clumps" is a Spiers melodeon/Boden fiddle extravaganza), there are pensive moments (as captured by the Jon Boden composition "The Fog," and the song "Yonder Banks"). Still, the album serves admirably as a pill to purge melancholy, and a welcome return for Spiers and Boden, promising a fresh start for us all. Lee Blackstone
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Spiers and Boden
Spiro: Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow